Previously I wrote about ofukuro no aji, or mother's taste, but I think the single most potent form of maternal expression in Japanese culture must be the obento boxes that mothers prepare for their pre-school children.
Historically, bento originated as portable food for long journeys, usually rice and savoury tidbits wrapped in a bamboo leaf or carried in woven baskets. The main idea was a meal that could be eaten cold and would not perish on the road, thus contents were well-seasoned and thoroughly cooked. Partitioned and lidded decorative boxes (usually lacquered) came into use at the close of the politically tumultuous Momoyama period (1568-1600) and during the relatively stable Edo period (1600-1686) that followed, bento increasingly become associated with pleasure and entertainment. Popular variations included hanami-bento (for cherry-blossom viewing) and maku-no-uchi bento (literally, "between the scenes"; eaten between the acts at kabuki theater).
Today bento is ubiquitous in collective life in Japan, in school as well as at work. When I used to work for a Tokyo newspaper, every day after the first deadline delivery boys would race around the newsroom handing a bento to each employee. The contents varied: sometimes they would be a classical shake bento (a bit of broiled salmon, a piece of tamagoyaki egg, some pickled vegetables) sometimes a Western-style yoshoku bento (tonkatsu breaded pork cutlets, for example, always with side of shredded cabbage) or a Chinese-style chuka bento, which might feature shumai dumplings. Whatever the style there was always a square of white rice with a red umeboshi, salt-preserved plum in the center, patriotically resembling the Japanese flag.
These bentos were store-ordered but when it comes to school, that's another matter. A measure of good motherhood is your ability to rise at the crack of dawn each morning and put together a nutritious and attractive bento for your child. In assembling the contents, you must follow several rules. First is the rule of 4-3-2-1, which means that the bento box must be composed of four parts rice, three parts protein, two parts vegetable and one part fruit. The various elements must be arranged artfully in varying colors and shapes and carefully divided by partitions and foil. It must be neatly wrapped in cloth with accompanying pair of child-sized chopsticks.
Above all, you must make your child's bento as cute as possible. Hence carrot slices are cut into flower shapes while apple wedges are peeled to resemble bunnies. Miniature sausage links are slit before being fried so that legs curl up to look like an octopus. Rice toppings are often sprinkled on in the shape of a heart or animals, with the help of cookie cutters. To be sure, children love eye candy and these picture-perfect bento represent a labor of love, the desire to please your child. But I wonder if it is also not a misplaced form of competition among mothers who need to establish social pecking order through their children or driven by fears that your child will be ostracized by conformist peers.
I personally never experienced "cute" bento and never recall ever wanting one. After moving to the U.S. I quickly embraced the brown bag lunch combo of sandwich and apple. My mother did too, after a teacher gently hinted that the onigiri rice balls she initially packed were a bit strange (perhaps it was the black nori) and not quite appropriate for school.
Some decades later, I am in turn packing lunches for my daughter. A serreptitious peek into the lunch bags of her classmates reveal: quesadillas, kimichi sushi rolls, hummus and Arabic bread, heaped rather pell-mell into practical tupperwares. Not a peanut butter & jelly sandwich in sight (in any case all nuts are forbidden, for reasons of allergies.) The only common denominator is that they are "healthy"and otherwise reflect the diverse cultural origins of her class. For my part I sometimes find myself subconsciously following the rule of 4-3-2-1 as I fill my daughter's Hello Kitty bento box, even if it does not necessarily include rice...